glitter & glory

Sometimes I wonder if it is the nature of the established church to be given back it’s sacramental identity by the ‘outsiders’ around it. Ah, but I’ve given the game away, haven’t I? If I were properly an establishment figure, there would be no outsiders. Only hidden Christians, hidden Anglicans.

So, let me start again: I sometimes wonder if the nature of the established church to loose sight of its sacramental identity, and to have it returned by those on the edges.

And maybe, just maybe, that is what’s happening in the Church of England, through the goad of Glitter Ash.

This year, Glitter Ash hit Facebook consciousness. It arises out of the Metropolitain Community Churches as a way of affirming LGBTI inclusion, and in defiance of a world that has too often told some of God’s children that they are not acceptable as they are. So, instead of the dark black ash, a bit of glitz. A way of saying ‘you are loved.’ (you can read more here)

I have absolutely no issue with the MCC using glitter ash, and I don’t for a moment think it is sacrilege. I simply think it is unnecessary. Ash is glorious enough.

And that is the gift the MCC has given us: the realisation that ash is already glorious. The weight of penitence is so great in the Church of England. It is in our liturgies and in our hymnals, so much so that even our youngest choir member is already encumbered by a language of God that speaks first of sin, and only later (with prompting) of joy. And what could be more penitential than ash?

But glitter ash made me reconsider. Maybe ash isn’t about penitence, but glory. For what could be more glorious than a sign of our humanity — a reminder of our fragility, and the holy hush of wonder when we realise we must not take a moment of this life for granted? I had never thought about ash as a sign of the incarnation before, but that is what it is. And incarnation offers all the glitz we need — no glitter greater.

Is that what people have realised when they seek out Ashes to Go? Are they seeking not penitence, but affirmation of holiness?

I had become so used to the liturgy, to the heavy weight of penitence in the church, that I had seen Ashes to Go as an odd thing. Why on earth should we encourage people to engage in penance on the streets, when we don’t equally give them absolution, communion, blessing? What good does it do to mark people with an ash cross if they don’t stay long enough to hear the words of forgiveness and be transformed by the gifts of God’s love?

But maybe that’s not what’s going on. Maybe they are not engaging in penance, but seeking acceptance. Maybe they have caught just a hint of God’s generous sharing, and are looking for a sign that the glory of God is theirs.

I still think we could do this better with oil than with ash, or with bread and wine, rather than dust. But it’s something. So, I find myself glad for all those people I disagree with today, who have taught me something about a sacramental sign I thought I knew, and who might just be goading the church into a better understanding of God’s glory.

‘look up, startled’

This is my new favourite poem (though that is an ever fluid category).

It comes from Joyce Sidman’s What the Heart Knows, which appears to be a book of poems for children but really isn’t.

I used it last week in a sermon (along with an abundance of T.S. Eliot) to talk about how poetry opens perception and can reach and change us long before we understand.

It reminds me so much of home — and I have just learned that Sidman is from Connecticut and lived in Middletown. But it is of course every moment of waking, of wonder, and of grace almost missed.

Wake with a dream-filled head.
Stumble out into the morning,
barely aware of how the sun
is laying down strips of silver
after three days’ rain,
of how the puddles
are singing with green.
Look up, startled
at the crackle of something large
moving through the underbrush.
Your pulse jumping,
gaze into its beautiful face.
The wary doe’s body,
the soft flames of ears.
As it bounds away,
listen to the rhythm
of your own heart’s disquiet.
Burn into memory
the white flag of its parting.
Before you return
to house and habit,
cast your eyes into the shadows,
where others stand waiting
on delicate hooves.

— Joyce Sidman
What the Heart Knows



a need for poetry

Poetry has been pressing itself into consciousness lately.

I suspect it began with a seminar — a chance to play with poems amidst theologians — which woke something long dormant. But I’m sure my desire for poetry is also an aftermath of the shock of Trump. Not so much escapism, as deliberate protest against a political narrative that sees complexity as an unnecessary elitist complication, and which tries to crush truth into obedience.

Then, early in the New Year, as I caught up with back issues of the Church Times, I read an article about reading levels in liturgy. It argued that the language of liturgy was too complex — that we should aim for a lower reading level to be more accessible. I skimmed it and moved on, but it kept bothering me. Is reading-level really the key issue in liturgical language? Is the language of liturgy about understanding?

Liturgical language is performative. It helps create the relationships it describes. It needs to be big enough to hold all the emotions in the room, the different stages of faith, and all the ways of perceiving and relating to God. Only poetry is big enough for that. Only poetry shapes mood and raises expectation so that our longing for God becomes big enough that God might fit in.

It’s the polyvalent nature of poetry I long for — the constant assertion that meaning can be present and hidden all at once; that a word might mean more than one thing. I want liturgy to do that, because I believe scripture does that — and getting used to layers of meaning in poetry gives us language to grow into and helps keep us open to the ongoing revelation of God.

But mostly, I want poetry because it gives us space to breathe. I found myself wondering how many people in the congregation have ever read Eliot, R.S. Thomas, Levertov, Mary Oliver — and worrying that hardly anyone had. I may never convince them that poetry is necessary, but it’s negligent not to try.

So, we are having a month of poetry in The Waltham Group.  Full blown evangelism, with scansion lessons and poetic terms and all.

We don’t have time for this, of course. There are no doubt faculties to write and finance plans to devise. But in this world where truth is getting bashed by bullies and complexity is denied, where else can we turn, but the power of the word?




Between Shema and shalom
there were rabbit tracks
winding scrolls of hope through ash pits.

I stood
where I planned to remember death
caught in bewildering joy.

I hadn’t expected the beauty
of snow, of light, of birch,
and I wondered:

What if we let the land heal?
Chose life — the best defiance —
and watched the chimneys fall.


One woman carried a cheese grater —
when her world was disrupted
stuffed into sacks
clutched, and then hidden.
She chose to keep faith in details.

So I came home and cooked
grated carrot
made soup
watched slow yeast rise
through recalcitrant rye

Because this is how we become
human. The ritual of wonder
as grace tumbles like tea leaves
and what is cut and broken
becomes blessed.


In our churchyard there is mistletoe —
the romantic notion
of a former rector
to bring berries, laughter,

So I saw it, crowning the tree-tops
following the rail line,
and wondered: was this too defiance —
Resister’s gift? Or God’s
grace brushing cattle cars:
‘You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.’


(photo, with thanks, by The Revd Richard Frank)